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The Last Survivors: Low Yoke Kwan


SHARON Tan knew her grandmother lived through World War II, but she never knew how horrifying some of her experiences were until she came across The Last Survivors (TLS), a R.AGE webseries on Malaysian WWII survivors.

After watching the series, produced to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s final surrender in Kuala Lumpur, Tan decided to contribute what she knew about her grandmother’s story to the TLS interactive map.

But it was only when R.AGE reached out for more information that Tan realised there were so many other stories she had never heard, and which could have been lost forever.

Her grandmother, Low Yoke Kwan, 96, lived in Petaling Street when the Japanese invaded Kuala Lumpur. Her family fled to Salak South, then an undeveloped village on the outskirts of town, hoping to escape the atrocities they heard the Japanese troops were committing. They had no such luck.

Low remembers a neighbour who was gang-raped and killed.

“We thought she’d be left alone. They usually left you alone if you were married,” said Low. “She had just given birth. Her husband tried to stop them but they beat him up and made him watch, a gun held to his head.”

Low said the man would wander around town aimlessly after that, cradling his baby.

“It was so pitiful watching them. They disappeared after a while. We never found out what happened to them.”

To avoid a similar fate as her neighbour, Low disguised herself as a boy throughout the Japanese Occupation.

Low remembers seeing her neighbour walking around listlessly, baby in his arms after his wife was killed.

Low remembers seeing her neighbour walking around listlessly, baby in his arms after his wife was killed.

Even though the stories are painful to hear, Tan and her grandmother were eager to share them on TLS, making them the first audience-contributed episode in the video series.

“I definitely think it’s important to capture these stories. That’s why I’m so supportive of this. It’s a really great initiative by R.AGE,” said Tan.

In the new episode, filmed back in Salak South over a family lunch, Low also told Tan how close she was to being captured once, when a Japanese soldier came to her village to take food.

“He kept asking for toddy (alcohol), so I thought he was a local. Turns out he was saying tori, which is Japanese for chicken,” said Low with a laugh.

Low brought the man to her house, where her grandmother quickly realised he was Japanese because of his headgear.

“She told the soldier I was a young boy, that I didn’t know anything. When he turned away I ran out of there as fast as I could, to the underground tunnel.”

The tunnel was built by the villagers as a shelter from the Japanese bombers that attacked KL during the invasion.

“Suddenly, I saw one of our chickens – it had followed me to the tunnel! I heard footsteps coming closer but all I could do was hide there.”

She hid in the shelter until her cousin brother signalled to her that it was safe. Turns out the soldier decided to take a neighbour’s chickens instead.

“Looking back, I realise how lucky I was. Food was scarce, but we had a small vegetable garden and chickens to eat,” said Low.

Even though Tan was cared for by her grandmother when she was growing up, she hardly heard any of these stories.

Tan grew up with her grandmother, but never knew the full extent of what she went through until the filming of The Last Survivors.

Tan grew up with her grandmother, but never knew the full extent of what she went through until the filming of The Last Survivors.

“It’s strange because I grew up with her, and now I realise there are so many things about her I never knew. Her life is so different from how we live today,” said Tan.

“I think I was always too busy with studies, work and motherhood to really sit down and ask her.”

After the war, she returned to her home in Petaling Street (now a budget hotel), which was very near a building where the Japanese kept their comfort women. She resumed her education and got married soon after.

While filming the episode, we asked her to pinpoint some of the exact locations where her stories took place. But because Salak South has changed so much, those locations are now lost to her.

Although Tan discovered the series on Facebook, she feels social media is part of the reason the young people aren’t interested in history these days

“There’s an information overload when you go on social media, on important and unimportant events that leave little curiosity for things of the past,” said Tan.

“Our education system also presents things in a dry manner, which doesn’t help. It’s really important to have first-hand accounts to tell people what truly happened.

One important lesson Tan learned after listening to her grandmother’s stories is that not all the Japanese soldiers were cruel to the locals. Some were kind and helpful, but those stories are rarely told in textbook accounts of the Occupation.

Four generations in one picture: Tan (in white) says Low (centre) likes to revisit Salak South from time to time.

Four generations in one picture: Tan (in white) says Low (centre) likes to revisit Salak South from time to time.

Today, Low lives in Petaling Jaya. She has five children, 14 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Now a mother herself, Tan hopes that by taking part in this project, her son and Low’s other great-grandchildren will have a record of a small part of their family’s history.

“It’s sad to think my grandmother is getting old and these stories will soon disappear. I’d like to have answers to give my son should he become interested in our family’s roots.”


 

Do you know any World War II survivors’ stories? Share them with us in the comments below! We would love to add your story to our interactive map of WWII in Malaysia.

About

Somewhat regretting the decision to join R.AGE due to their love affair with puns. Just kidding (or am I?), the R.AGE team is super cool and every day brings new experiences. Meeting people from all walks of life and being able to cover it? Amazing.

  • Jolyn Gan

    my grandmother fled the ww2 and the communist in Melaka. i grew up with her telling me d stories of how she at 7 yrs old (plus minus) and then d communist when she just got married with a baby. maybe she can also b a good inspiration for R.A.G.E

    • Hi Jolyn!

      Feel free to email us her story and the exact locations at alltherage@thestar.com.my. We can put it up on our contributor’s page at rage.com.my/survivors-contribution/ if it’s not made into an episode 🙂

  • EAH

    What an excellent account and something which all Malaysians need! Too many of us have forgotten about the hardship of the Japanese Occupation because we have so many comforts such as good food (to the point of being so wasteful as The Star Online headlined recently!), shopping malls, great colleges and comfortable houses and public roads and amenities. I’m not saying these should all be taken away but at least we should be grateful to God who Granted us all these comforts and most important we should remain humble, kind, sensitive and helpful to others.

    • Thanks! These survivors’ stories give such an amazing account of our WWII history, and they inspire us with each episode we film. Hope you stay tuned for our upcoming TLS videos =)

  • Gen Eral Richh

    What General Suharto’s army did to President Soekarno’s supporters in 1965 …. and during East Timur’s quest for Independence is many times more worse and more heinous and more Savage.

  • Adele

    My grandma was married off to my grandfather to prevent the Japanese from capturing her as she was a young girl at that time. She used to tell me about how she wasn’t producing enough milk to feed my eldest uncle who was just born and how she had to venture outside with the baby and a condensed milk tin to try and buy milk. That whenever a Japanese bomber fly overhead when she was outside, she had to quickly run and hide. Too bad I never paid much attention to her stories when I was a kid and now she’s gone and her stories buried with her forever.

  • Jennifer

    My grandma hid her diamond earrings, a gift from her loving husband in the wall of the bathroom, but the Japanese soldiers found them. One day her husband was taken away to stand under the sun in rows for no reason. He needed to urinate and walked away towards a tree, he was accused of trying to run away, that’s what my grandma heard, he never came back. She stayed in a double storey shop house, there’s a hole on the floor in an upstairs room looking straight down to the main door downstairs. One could see who’s knocking. I used to love peeping through the hole as a kid. Grandma said neighbour’s and friend’s friends would come to seek shelter and she would always open the door for them.

  • Chong Weng Kit

    My paternal grandfather was slaughtered by the Japanese soldiers together with my little uncles, my father manage to escape with my grandmother. We never heard of my grandfather anymore, the last I heard from my dad was my grandfather was caught and become forced labor and died for reason only the Japanese soldiers would have known. Because of the WWII and the Japanese soldier’s action, my dad lost his father and our family suffer as my father was given away and his sibling suffer similar fate. My father was lucky later on as my grandma remarried and redeemed my dad from his foster home. The damage and mental suffering has cost my family dearly.

  • Siok Hiong

    My maternal grandmother stayed in Batu 15 Kapar with her children and her husband during the WWII Japanese Occupation. My mother was not even born yet that time. There was an underground tunnel where the family hid themselves. My grandmother said that none of her children were going to school because they did not have decent food on table to feed all 9 children. The children will hide obediently inside the tunnel when any soldier came to check, it was impressive as they know its danger because I do not think any kid nowsaday will stay quietly for hours in a dark narrow hole even though we tell them to keep quiet from danger.

    My paternal grandmother stayed in Kuala Selangor with her children and her husband, and her own family during the WWII Japanese Occupation. Her second brother was buried alive by the Malaya communist because he was a Japanese soldier (even though he was forced into the force to put food on the table), he was in his twenties.
    There was a burial land for the Japanese soldiers behind SRJK(C) Pin Hwa Klang that was once a rubber estate during the occupation.

The Map

Click on any pin on the map to read its World War II story. Red pins are stories by R.AGE, yellow are stories contributed by readers. If you have a World War II story you’d like us to upload to this map, email us (alltherage@thestar.com.my) along with the exact location of your story on Google Maps.
Pictures of locations from during the war or comparison pictures can also be emailed to us.
Video submissions are encouraged so get out there and talk to a survivor. Interesting stories and videos stand a chance to be filmed as an episode of The Last Survivors.

[embed-map mapsource="http://clips.thestar.com.my/Media/TheLastSurvivors.kmz"]

More Last Survivors episodes

Watch all the latest episodes, and find out how you can help document the stories of Malaysia’s WWII survivors.

Picture Gallery

Behind-the-scenes photos from our Last Survivors shoots across the country.

Come February 2016, it will be 70 years since the final surrender of the Japanese army in Kuala Lumpur.Sadly, the...

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